The Art of Montage: The Godfather
This is the second in a series of blogs about the art of montage in cinema. In my first blog, I talked about the cinematic origin of the montage in Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin.
When discussing the art of montage and the greatest montages in cinema history, it would be a mistake to neglect to mention what many consider to be the greatest montage (and film) ever: The Godfather. The 1972 gangster film is a cinematic classic, and it features a classic montage at the end of the film.
Michael Corleone (played by Al Pacino), son of gangster Vito Corleone (played by marlon Brando, who won an Academy Award for his role), tries everything he can to stay out of “the family business” for the majority of the film, instead longing for an average, American life free from crime. However, by the end of the film (KIND OF SPOILER ALERT), Vito has grown old and through a series of events, Michael takes over his role as the Don of the crime family.
Every aspect of the filmmaking of the film is just spectacular from the cinematography, to the editing, to the acting. Though I personally don’t care for mobster films, I still fully appreciate how this film is beautifully. The culmination of the storytelling, as well as the story itself, comes near the end of the film with the iconic church scene.
Michael is attending the christening of his newborn nephew. He is there as the godfather of the baby boy. Meanwhile, Michael has organized a hit on a rival gang to take place during the christening as a show of revenge for (HUGE SPOILER ALERT) the murder of his brother. As the priest asks Michael questions about his faith and he renounces Satan, the sequence is intercut with shots of Michael’s cronies eliminating members of the other gang.
The beauty of this montage is in the editing. The beginning of the montage is the priest chanting in Latin, intercut with the assassins preparing their weapons, driving to the locations where they are going to murder their respective targets, and getting into position. What’s interesting is that the chanting that the priest is doing could be seen by some as a setting up of sorts to the culmination where he asks Michael a list of questions and then baptizes the baby. Perhaps this is why the editors, William Reynolds and Peter Zinner, chose to show the preparation of the murders instead of the murders themselves. They very easily could have chosen to instead go straight to the action, but they instead chose exposition.
Another interesting note is the music choice. The score of the scene is organ music. While it represents the church setting, the music clearly is not the kind of music that would be played in church. The music in the scene is far more tense, with plenty of minor chords, as opposed to the more somber, but peaceful music of church. Still, though, it is an excellent choice for the scene.
After the priest finishes his initial chants he asks Michael three questions: Do you believe in God the Father, do you believe in Jesus Christ, and do you believe in the Holy Spirit and the “holy Catholic Church?” Interestingly, we don’t see the exchange between Michael and the priest for the last two questions. Instead, we see the assassins take their position. We continue to see them as the priest chants some more in Latin. I’ll come back to this point in a minute.
The Godfather won the Best Picture award at the 1973 Academy Awards.
As the mobsters take their respective positions and the tension continues to build, we hear the sound of Michael’s newborn nephew crying. This is an interesting aesthetic choice. This could have very easily been removed, but Reynolds and Zinner choice to leave it in. This gives the audience a foreshadowing of the events that are about to transpire. It is subtle, but very powerful.
As the priest finishes his next round of chants, he asks Michael more questions. This is the culmination of everything the scenes has been building up to. What the priest asks and what Michael says in response is perfectly juxtaposed with the images of death and murder being committed by Michael and his gang. As Michael declares that he renounces Satan and all his ways, we see the bloody deeds finally done, as each member of the Corleone gang succeeds in their respective missions.
There’s an interesting, but subtle difference in this part of the scene as opposed to the first part of the scene — Michael’s responses aren’t heard over images of murder. Instead, Reynolds and Zinner cut to a close-up of Michael’s face for every response. It could have been very easy for them to just have a Pacino voiceover over the images of the mobsters, but they chose to cut to his face instead. While it is unclear as to why, I have a theory. An important aspect of acting is in the eyes of the actor. In fact, it’s just as important as what the character says. Pacino says more in his eyes than he does verbally in the scene. As his cronies are doing his dirty work, we see so much hate in Michael’s eyes. He clearly does not mean what he says, based on the orders he has given his men.
As the priest pours the water over the baby, we see final shots of the dead bodies, as the Corleone men make their getaway. The priest then tells Michael to “go in peace,” the final juxtaposition of this exquisite montage.
The Godfather won the Best Picture award at the 1973 Academy Awards. It’s not hard to see why when you analyze this classic montage. There are so many layers in it that I could have gone into but didn’t have the time to do in this blog. A good film is layered, and the same is true of a good montage. The Godfather succeeds at both.
Matt is a 23-year-old producer, director, and writer from DFW, Texas, who holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Film, TV, and Digital Media from Texas Christian University and is now an apprentice at the Center for Creative Media. His ultimate goal is to bring glory to God as a showrunner on TV. He is fueled by laughter, music, and donuts. Lots and lots of donuts.